Uxmal, one of the greatest of Yucatan's ancient cities. Uxmal was the most important city in the Puuc area south of Mérida, and remained important even after the Mexicanized Maya invaded and conquered it in the Post Classic era. Representations of human figures emerging from snakes' mouths are also found at Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, another of the curious similarities archaeologists have found between the these two geographically separated civilizations. When I first saw carvings like this, and the ones at Tollan, I thought the snake was devouring the human. Later, I learned that these are a symbols of rebirth. For the Maya death was not final, but merely one stage in a continuous cycle, represented by the disappearance and reappearance of Venus, the Morning Star.
yet another cultural crossover found both at Tollan and at Chichen Itza. In the Maya context, the figures were called Bacab and represented the four immensely strong gods who held up the four corners of the world, with each corner being one of the cardinal directions.
copal, a fragrant tree resin. Copal is actually a derivative of the Nahuatl word copalli, meaning "incense". The Maya call it pom, and continue to burn it as part of rituals that have ancient roots. The sculptured head of this censer has the look of the rigid, militarized society that emerged after the takeover by the Itzas.
Mexicanized Maya invasion of the 10th Century AD, the Maya city states in Yucatan, Chiapas, and Central America had fiercely warred among themselves. Sometimes the cause was dynastic, sometimes it was a struggle over trade routes or precious resources like jade deposits, and sometimes it may have been a quest for captives to sacrifice to the gods.
Warfare was an elite occupation in which the general population probably did not participate, except in case of the overthrow of a ruler. Armies were not large, probably in the range of 500-1000 men on a side, organized and led by a figure known as the Halach Uinic. Since there was a close relationship between religion and warfare, campaigns were often timed around celestial events such as the cycles of Venus.
Quiriguá ambushed, captured, and sacrificed his overlord, the ruler of Copan. In a pitched battle, two armies would approach each other close enough to launch long-range missiles. To give extra distance and force, warriors often used the atlatl, or spear-thrower. Bows and arrows also were used, but not widely. When the distance weapons were exhausted, the armies would close for hand-to-hand combat, using their obsidian and chert bladed weapons. At this point, any discipline probably broke down and the battle would have become a melee between individuals. Since everyone knew the fate of captives was torture and sacrifice, the fighting would have been fierce.
The Ball Game
Guachimontanes in Western Mexico. The ball game served both religious and political purposes, and in many ways simulated combat. On a religious level, the struggle in the ball court reenacted that of the Hero Twins against the Lords of Xilbalba (the Underworld). In addition, the game was sometimes used as an alternative to war to settle disputes between city states. In the drawing above, you can see the Temple of Kulkulkan in the upper left background. On top of the wall to its right is the Temple of the Jaguars. Set into the far wall about 7 meters (21 ft) above the players is a stone ring which casts a long diagonal shadow across the wall.
ball game are unclear. One way of scoring was apparently to pass the ball through the ring. This would have been exceedingly difficult since it was set so high on the wall, and the players could move the heavy rubber ball only with their hips, chests, and heads. One theory is that the object of the game, other than scoring through the ring, was somewhat like badminton, i.e. to keep the ball off the ground and in play. From the carvings on the walls at Chichen Itza, it is clear that some of the players were sacrificed after the game. Whether those accorded this dubious honor were the losers or the winners is the subject of an on-going dispute. Although the Maya built the greatest of all the ball courts, and played the game nearly everywhere in their world, they did not invent it. The ball game appears to have originated with the Olmecs who built the earliest known court in approximately 1400 BC. Today, indigenous people in the northern state of Sinaloa still play a version of the ball game called ullama (without human sacrifice, however).
The Maya saw jade as being of divine origin and much more important than gold. It was used both for religious objects and for personal decoration. Jade is a very hard material and therefore difficult to carve, especially with little more than stone or bone tools. Regardless, Maya craftsmen created countless exquisitely detailed pieces, as can be seen on the fragment above. The kinds of jade jewelry created included ear plugs, pendants, necklaces, masks, pectorals wristbands, bracelets, and even jade chips to insert into people's teeth.
Other objects offered up to cenotes, included copper and gold bells, masks, cups, figurines, and the human being. As the 20th Century dawned, American archaeologist Edward Thompson dredged the Chichen Itza cenote and recovered many of the objects already mentioned, but also the bones of men, women, and children.
The Cult of Death
crossed arms. This is a posture often found on images of captives, when they aren't shown with hands bound behind them. Given the jade bracelet on his right wrist, and his necklace, he was probably a noble captured in battle. The fate of such captives was rarely good, since high-status captives were nearly always sacrificed, sometimes after extensive torture. While it is true that human sacrifice in the Maya Classic Era world was never on the assembly-line basis found among the Aztecs of the Post-Classic world, it was far from rare. This became particularly true after the Itzas and other Mexicanized Mayas arrived on the scene. These Gulf Coast Maya tribes had wholeheartedly adopted the Toltec death cult and all of its images, as well as the sophisticated Toltec military organization and tactics which enabled their rapid conquest of Yucatan.
Chac Mools like the one above may have originated with the Toltecs, and many have been found at Tollan, their capital. Both there and at Chichen Itza, they are closely associated with warrior temples and human sacrifice. A Chac Mool nearly always has certain features. The figure lies on its back, knees bent, while leaning on its elbows. The head, always wearing a distinctive hat and large square ear projections, is turned and gazes off into the distance. The hands meet at the stomach and hold a bowl or plate, possibly to receive the still warm and bleeding heart of the freshly sacrificed captive.
Tzompantli are prominent features of both Chichen Itza and Tollan. In both ancient cities, great platforms stand on which skull racks once rose high. In both cities, these platforms are immediately adjacent to large ball courts, and not far from shrines to the eagle and jaguar military cults. The stone skulls above were merely symbols of the real thing. Both the Itzas and the Toltecs mounted recently decapitated and skinned heads on long racks containing hundreds of previously placed skulls. There were row upon row of skulls, and the rows were stacked many layers high. Tzompantlis did not originate with either the Toltecs or Itzas, however. Archaeologists have found evidence of skull racks in Oaxaca State dating as far back as 1500 BC, the beginning of the Olmec era. The purpose of the skull racks seems to have been intimidation of foreign or domestic enemies. Had I lived in that era, they certainly would gotten my attention.